When Dora Fuller's Oak Cliff home caught fire early Wednesday morning, family and neighbors called 911 only to be greeted by a recorded hold message. All told, according to police it took about 10 minutes between the first call and the time a fire crew arrived from a station 500 feet away.
The inevitable question arose: Why did it take so long to reach a dispatcher? Police attributed the delay to a flood of early-morning calls and the failure of callers to stay on the line. That would have been the wise thing to have done, no doubt, but they were watching a house burn down, not calling AT&T about their cable service, and so can be forgiven for not acting in a completely logical manner.
City officials have joined in the chorus calling for a review of the city's 911 system. Mayor Mike Rawlings told the Dallas Morning News this morning that he was asking city staff to find a technological solution to the problem. Assistant City Manager A.C. Gonzalez suggested increasing the number of backup lines that instruct callers not to hang up, which is a reasonable, even obvious step.
Officials were adamant that the delayed response had absolutely nothing to do with staffing levels. DPD had upped the number of dispatchers in anticipation of a high July 4 call volume and, even though three of the 16 who were scheduled called in sick, manpower wasn't an issue. "You're never going to have it perfect at all, but I think that history shows that we have had enough call operators to handle the calls," Mayor Pro Tem Pauline Medrano told the News. Rawlings agreed. "You can't ever staff for the total peak; that just doesn't happen in any business," Mayor Mike Rawlings said Thursday. "A tough situation happened at a high call time. But we've got to have a technological answer to this; you just can't do it with manpower.
I was curious, given the thousand cuts endured by the budget in recent years, how 911 staffing has fared. A DPD spokeswoman told me the department is preparing a statement about the incident for later today, but for year-by-year staffing levels, I'd have to submit an open records request. Since that would at least take a couple of weeks, I poked around in recent city budgets to see what I could find.
It was hard to get an apples-to-apples comparison. For one, the bulk of 911 operations were shifted from Dallas Fire-Rescue to DPD in October 2008, and the budget is rolled in with vehicle impoundment, confirmation of adult arrests, and other functions classified as "Police Operational Support."
But since 2009 at least, both funding and staffing have decreased, by 11.1 percent and 5.7 percent for Police Operational Support. It's unclear how many of those cuts fell on dispatch. Staffing has dropped even more, by 14 percent, under the "Fire Dispatch and Communications" budget item, described as providing "staffing, training, and equipment to rapidly recieve and dispatch approximately 200,000 fire/emergency medical service calls. There were other cuts to funding for temporary backup.
What the impact is on the ground impact, I'm not sure. But if you're cutting one out of every seven positions from a department, there's no way that doesn't have some impact.